Clive Palmer is understandably the talk of the town after Thursday’s theatrics but more concerning than Palmer’s buffoonery is the context which has enabled him to do behave so erratically yet reap political capital from doing so. In order to comprehend Palmer’s recent Damascus road transformation into the environmental hero we need to more closely examine the less dramatic ideological shifts from the Liberal Party since taking government.
As Opposition Leader Abbott would eschew the rhetoric of climate skepticism; occasionally he would even hint that he was open to putting a price on carbon if a binding global agreement were to come about. What he vehemently opposed was unilateral carbon pricing. Acting before the rest of the world did, so Abbott claimed, would put the Australian economy at an enormous competitive disadvantage. Instead he proposed Direct Action, a policy that would supposedly achieve Labor’s emissions reduction target yet would inflict no financial burden onto the Australian electorate. His claim was of course highly dubious; Direct Action would not come close to bridging the gap created by the repeal of the Carbon Tax and it would still impose a financial burden on voters because the funding would come out of consolidated revenues, i.e. income tax ,but at a conceptual level the argument was irresistible. Who would choose a price on carbon when they could just as easily reduce emissions without paying anything? And then, if the rest of the world got their act together on climate change, we could then transition to a carbon price without incurring a competitive disadvantage. Then Abbott won an election and things begin to change.
Perhaps it was the looming prospect of having to try and implement a policy that was both costly and ineffective or perhaps he felt emboldened by the lead of his mentor John Howard but since coming to power Abbott has cast aside the moderate rhetoric and flipped the switch to climate sceptic. The first big indicator was in November when the government boisterously declined to send representatives to the Climate Change Conference in Warsaw. It was a decision completely at odds with the Prime Minister’s purported support for emissions reductions. At the time I speculated that perhaps Abbott intended to freeload off the work of other nations but last month he shifted gear yet again, this time joining forces with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to form an alliance of governments that opposed carbon pricing.
The message Abbott and Harper conveyed was difficult to interpret in any way that did not include an element of climate skepticism. Perhaps the Prime Minister was just following his true convictions but as political strategy it was an error. It may be mainstream to oppose carbon taxation or even to suspect that the impacts of climate change are exaggerated but fully fledged climate skepticism falls well beyond the technocratic consensus. By their actions the government has ceded their position well within the bounds of normalcy and exiled themselves to the political fringe.
Someone was always going to capitalize upon the government’s mistake but with Kevin Rudd now gone nobody had a hope of competing with Palmer in the opportunism stakes. It took all of five seconds for Palmer to notice that the Liberal Party had just vacated a political position they’d spent the better part of four years selling (and with great success too) and he immediately moved to claim the position for his own. First he trotted out Al Gore to announce that he supported a qualified emissions trading scheme, now he’s torpedoed the repeal of the Carbon Tax and is savaging the government with accusations of skulduggery.
The government says it will reintroduce the legislation next week but now the Liberal Democrats are hedging over the Palmer amendments. Perhaps Palmer’s strategy will be to saddle the bill with so many amendments that the government loses Xenophon, Day and Leyonhjelm. And if somehow the government manages to get it through the senate it is a safe bet that Palmer will boast that he took a dud of a policy (or policy package) and transformed it into an effective mechanism for reducing carbon emissions. Some pundits like Ross Gittins on Richard Glover’s program on Thursday are saying that for all his theatrics, Palmer’s business interests will ultimately see him support the repeal but I’m not so certain. By now Palmer must have spent an obscene amount on campaigning and his behaviour is hardly that of a man that just wants to get the tax repealed then bugger off. He carries on much more like a spurned Liberal determined to settle a few scores by catching every passing wave of populist sentiment. Palmer has indicated that he now supports a dormant ETS that is activated by an international agreement. Perhaps the million dollar question that Bill Shorten needs to be asking is whether Palmer would consider indexing an Australian ETS to the current scheme already in place in Europe. Given the billionaires recent willingness to repudiate previously held positions in other to align himself more closely with mainstream political thinking he might just be prepared to spin it as the dormant ETS he was looking for.